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Devoted to the game: Looking back at Oh’s career

by Robert Whiting

First in a two-part series

“He showed us all how much you can accomplish if you set your mind to it. And that’s a beautiful thing.’‘ — Hiroshi Arakawa, Sadaharu Oh’s batting sensei

Sadaharu Oh has retired. The legendary baseball figure, suffering from ill health in the wake of cancer surgery, appeared in his last game as manager of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in October, putting an end to a remarkable 50-year career in baseball.

The news of his departure from the field triggered a wave of nostalgia among older fans for an era they recalled with great fondness, tinged perhaps with a sense of guilt that they could have appreciated their hero a little bit more than they did.

Oh was one of the two iconic figures of his generation and of a time known as the “Golden Age of Japanese Baseball.” He and his legendary teammate, matinee idol Shigeo Nagashima, formed the powerful cleanup duo on the Yomiuri Giants known as the “O-N Cannon,” often compared to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of New York Yankees fame.

Together, they led the Giants to 14 pennants and 11 Japan Series championships, including an unparalleled nine in a row starting in 1965. The success of the proud Kyojin in that era cemented baseball’s position as the country’s national sport, with telecasts of Giants games dominating prime time television. It also symbolized the new status Japan was acquiring as a world economic super power, conquering global markets with Japanese-manufactured cars, cameras and TV sets.

In Oh’s 22-year career with the team, ending in 1980, he won every major title and award there was many times over, including 15 home run crowns. He slammed a total of 868 round-trippers, a world record.

He then went on to a successful second life as a manager, winning several pennants and two Japan Series titles. He reached the zenith of his managerial career in 2006 when he led Team Japan to a stunning triumph in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.

Yet, throughout it all, curiously, Oh was less popular than Nagashima, despite more impressive accomplishments as a player and manager. It was Nagashima who always was known as “Mr. Giants” and “Mr. Puro-Yakyu” in Japan, not Sadaharu Oh.

Oh was the Tokyo-born son of a Chinese immigrant and a Japanese mother. He overcame discrimination in his youth to lead Waseda Jitsugyo to glory in the 1957 High School Spring Championship Tournament at Koshien Stadium.

Before a nationwide TV audience, Oh pitched four complete games in four days in the final stages of the tourney, despite bleeding, infected blisters on his pitching hand that covered the baseball in blood.

Joining the Yomiuri Giants in 1959, he was adjudged to have lost the pop on his fastball and converted to first base to take advantage of his natural power at bat. However, Oh experienced a lengthy period of adjustment because of a serious hitch in his swing. He went hitless in his first 26 at-bats as a professional and put up mediocre statistics during his first three years.

In 1961, for example, he could hit but 13 home runs with a .253 batting average. Said Hiroshi Gondo of the Chunichi Dragons, a 30-game winner that year, “Frankly, it was easy to get him out. He could not hit a fastball. You could just blow it by him.”

To overcome Oh’s defect, the Giants hired a batting coach named Hiroshi Arakawa, who was also a martial arts sensei. From January 1962, the portly, moon-faced Arakawa began working with Oh every morning at his aikido dojo and devised a most unusual remedy.

“Oh’s problem,” said Arakawa, “was a tendency to stride too soon and open up his body. I devised a one-legged stance to focus his center of gravity on a smaller area. I got the idea from watching batters like Kaoru Betto of the Hanshin Tigers, who also lifted his foot somewhat before swinging. But I made Oh lift his leg higher, to waist level, and stand there like a flamingo as he waited for the ball.

“At first, Oh found it very difficult to do. We practiced and practiced and he slowly got better, but he was afraid to use it in a game for a long time.”

But then came the time he had to try — a rain-soaked game versus the Taiyo Whales at Kawasaki Stadium on July 1, 1962. The Giants had been in a slump. The team had lost six games in a row and fallen back in the standings. Many were blaming it on Oh, who was hitting .250 with nine home runs and had killed many rallies by striking out.

The name “Oh” meant “king” in Japanese and the sports dailies had begun to derogate Oh by labeling him the “Sanshin Oh” or “Strikeout King.”

Giants manager Tetsuji Kawakami despaired Oh would ever step up to the next level. In desperation, he decided the moment had come to try his new stance in a game. He stepped into the batter’s box against Whales wiry right-hander Makoto Inagawa for his first at-bat, raised his right knee as high as he could, and stood there, waiting.

Out on the mound Inagawa thought to himself, “What the hell? He’ll never hit me with that stance.”

Inagawa wound up and fired a fastball, which Oh promptly lined into right field. Arakawa watched from the sidelines like a proud father. In his second at-bat, Oh slammed an Inagawa fastball into the right-field stands.

Arakawa leaped to his feet cheering. Oh finished the night with three hits and a beaming Arakawa told him afterward, “That’s it. You’ve got it. You’ll never go back now.”

Indeed, from then on, Oh was off and running. Using his bizarre new stance, Oh hit 10 homers in July, and 20 more after that, finishing with 38 to win the Central League home run crown.

Oh intensified his efforts in those morning sessions at the Arakawa dojo. He spent hours shadow swinging with Arakawa kneeling in front of him.

Arakawa was not just watching, but also listening. He wanted Oh to produce just the right “whoosh” as the bat cut through the air that would signify a perfect swing. Oh also began swinging a samurai-length sword, slicing sheets of paper, suspended from the ceiling, to strengthen his wrists and arms.

Shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka, who witnessed some of those excruciating sessions, marveled at the effort Oh was making. “What he was doing was extremely difficult,” said Oh’s teammate. “Especially the sword. The displacement of air when you swing it pushes the paper away. To cut it you have to hit it just right and that takes great wrist strength.”

“What we were doing,” said Oh, “was applying the principles of Budo (the military arts) to batting.”

The following season, Oh hit 40 homers to capture his second straight home run crown, and raised his average to .305.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to get Oh out. Pitchers tried, in vain, to change their approach.

Masaichi Kaneda, the great 400-game winner who had once boasted that nobody could hit his 155-kph fastball and roundhouse 12-6 curveball, was forced to change his tactics with Oh. He employed a stop-and-start delayed delivery to throw Oh’s timing off. But that didn’t work, either.

By that time, Oh had reached the point where he could stand in the batter’s box, right knee lifted up to his waist for a full 10 seconds, enough to outlast the most dilatory of pitchers.

As Kaneda put it ruefully, “Oh could hit any pitch at any speed. And you simply couldn’t break his focus.”

In desperation, Dragons right-hander Kentaro Ogawa even tried throwing pitches behind his (Ogawa’s) back. But he was as unsuccessful as anyone else.

But Oh was just getting started. In 1964, he hit 55 home runs to set a Japan record and raised his average to .320. It was his third straight home run title in what would be an unprecedented string of 13 in a row. He also won three batting championships in a row, starting in 1968, hitting .326, .345 and .325, respectively.

In 1973 and 1974, he garnered back-to-back Triple Crowns. That ’73 campaign was arguably his best single season; he hit .355, with 51 home runs and 114 RBIs.

It caused Hanshin Tigers manager Minoru Murayama to utter at one point, “I get a headache every time he comes to bat. I can’t bear to watch him anymore.”

Before he was finished, Oh would have 12 RBI crowns to go with his monopoly on the home run title, five batting titles and nine MVPs. On Sept. 3, 1977, Oh reached the pinnacle of his playing career, when he blasted his 756th home run, surpassing American Hank Aaron’s lifetime MLB record.

Yet, throughout the O-N era, Oh was never the most highly regarded player. That honor always belonged to his teammate, cleanup hitter Nagashima. In favorite player surveys, Oh always finished a distant second to the exalted Nagashima, even though Oh surpassed him in every statistical aspect of the game.

There were a number of reasons for this. Nagashima was older than Oh, which counted for something in Japanese society. He had come out of Rikkyo University to win the rookie of the year award in 1958 and then went on to capture the batting crown in each of the next three seasons, all while Oh was still struggling to find the right form.

Nagashima was charismatic, ebullient and a crowd pleaser, one who looked good even when striking out. He generated so much bat speed that his batting helmet would fly off his head if he swung and missed after one of his famous roundhouse cuts at a ball outside the strike zone. He was also entertaining in the field — a third baseman who could somehow turn ordinary groundballs into fielding gems.

Oh, by contrast, was somewhat dull, his unique foot-in-the-air hitting stance and prolific home run output aside. He had turned himself into a precision machine that almost never malfunctioned, but he also lacked a certain excitement. He was shy, stoic and a bit too mechanical for some fans.

Moreover, Nagashima had a flair for the dramatic. He had walloped a “sayonara” home run in the only official pro game Emperor Hirohito had ever attended, in 1959, a feat that was replayed ad nauseam in highlight reels for the next half-century.

Oh, for his part, had hit a record four home runs in a game in 1964, and homered in seven consecutive games in 1972, another record, but far fewer fans remembered those particular achievements. It wasn’t until after Nagashima retired in 1974 and Oh approached the Aaron mark, that Oh began to enjoy the spotlight alone and even earn some attention in America.

Ironically, Oh, by virtue of batting third in the order, made the cleanup-batting Nagashima, a better hitter. Oh was so disciplined, that he would never swing at a pitch outside the strike zone. He averaged a walk per game.

With the game on the line in the ninth inning, Oh quite often would draw a base on balls, even with a runner on base, because the pitchers were so afraid to pitch to him.

Nagashima would then come up to bat set up to drive in the winning run. The pitcher had no choice but to challenge him and Nagashima would often get a hit. It was how he developed his famous, if not entirely deserved, reputation for hitting in the clutch.

There was one more reason, perhaps, for Nagashima’s popularity. Nagashima was a pure-blooded Japanese, while Oh was not. Oh carried a Taiwanese passport, a Japanese alien registration card and was a member of a minority group that was not always welcomed in Japan. And perhaps that counted for something in certain quarters.

The upshot of all this was that Nagashima’s salary was always higher than Oh’s and he made far, far more money in endorsements. It was his uniform, No. 3, that all the school kids wanted to wear, not Oh’s No. 1.

A generation after both men had ceased playing, Oh held 18 different batting records that were all seemingly unassailable, including 13 RBI titles, 2,170 career RBIs, nine MVPs, a .634 lifetime slugging percentage and 5,862 total bases, in addition, of course, to his equally unassailable home run marks, while Nagashima held less than half that number, including four Japan Series MVPs, six Central League Batting titles, 10 Opening Day home runs, and leading the CL in hits 10 years in a row.

Yet, Hall of Fame pitcher Kazuhisa Inao, appearing in a 2004 NHK television retrospective on the history of Japanese professional, would place Nagashima at the top of the NPB pantheon.

“Before Nagashima there was no one,” he said. “And after Nagashima there was no one.”

Apparently, not even Sadaharu Oh, for such was the emotional attachment to Japan’s Golden Boy.

* * * * *

Oh faced a different kind of challenge in competing for attention on the world stage. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated (Aug. 15, 1977) during his assault on Aaron’s record and was featured in the Washington Post and Newsweek, among other major U.S. publications. Thus, many Americans knew his name, while by contrast, almost nobody knew who Nagashima was.

However, MLB fans in America, not overly familiar with the Japanese game, hotly objected to Oh’s 868 home runs being called a world record. They charged the level of play was lower and the parks smaller. Typical, perhaps, were the remarks of an irate reader who had responded to a New York Times article about Oh’s record by suggesting the “records in his neighborhood whiffle ball league should also be recognized.”

Although the level of the Japanese game was indeed regarded by experts to be inferior to that of the MLB, the fact is, Oh did bat against some very tough pitchers — wickedly effective breaking ball artists and a surprising number of speedball throwers.

It was generally agreed at the time by experts familiar with the Japanese game that there were at least a couple of MLB-level pitchers per team in Japan and whenever a team played the Giants in the O-N era, they were used to the maximum. It was a practice the ever quotable Clyde Wright, who played in Japan in the mid-70s, once described as “kamikaze baseball.”

Consider Yutaka Enatsu, a chunky left-handed fireballer with the Hanshin Tigers, whose performance against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals in 1968, prompted Cardinals manager Red Schoendienst to say, “He is one of the best left-handed pitchers I have ever seen. He is as good as Steve Carlton.”

Enatsu, who combined a fastball in the upper 150s with a devastating curve, struck out a record 401 batters in that ’68 season, a total higher than the MLB mark of 383 set by Nolan Ryan in 1973.

In his prime, whenever the Tigers played the Giants in a three-game series, Enatsu often would start the first and third games and often come on in relief in the second contest.

(The starter in the second game of those three-game sets for a number of years was usually Minoru Murayama, a forkball artist rated highly by ex-MLB players who faced him. Murayama’s lifetime ERA was a jaw-dropping 2.09.)

Enatsu dominated the Giants, but not Oh, who compiled a lifetime mark of 20 homers off Enatsu and a .287 batting average.

The oft-heard criticism about smaller parks admittedly had some validity. Old Korakuen Stadium, where Oh played, was listed as 90 meters down the line, shorter by about 10 meters than many MLB parks, and insiders secretly confessed that the real measurement was actually several meters less. But Oh’s home runs were usually not of the high flyball variety that landed in the front rows of the outfield stands, but rather hard line drives whose flight was terminated by the presence of the right-field seats, many rows back.

Oh, at 178 cm and 80 kg, was not a big man. But, as he himself put it, he had “the right muscles” to hit home runs. He had huge calves and tremendous leg power. That combined with the strong wrists he had developed and his great bat speed helped turn him into a slugger par excellence.

It is also worth noting that Oh hit all of his 868 circuit blasts in 155 fewer games and 597 fewer at-bats than Barry Bonds, the present MLB career record-holder who passed Aaron in 2007, needed to hit his total of 762.

There is no shortage of testimonials from former major league stars who saw Oh in action.

Davey Johnson, a slugging second baseman who played with both Aaron (in 1973 and 1974 in Atlanta), and Oh (in Tokyo in 1975-76), declared that Oh was as good a hitter as anyone he had ever seen.

Added the aforementioned Wright, a former California Angels pitching ace who also played with Oh, said, “Oh hit better on one leg than most guys in the big leagues hit on two.”

And then there was this insight from Clete Boyer, the former Yankee great who also played alongside Hank Aaron in Atlanta from 1967 to 1971 and then against Oh in the early ’70s when with the Taiyo Whales: “I think he’s super. He’s one of the best ballplayers I’ve ever seen. If Oh played in the U.S., he’d be a superstar. He would probably lead the league in home runs and would hit with the best of them.

“People say they would brush him back in the States because he crowds the plate, but he would learn fast. He’s got great reflexes. He’s got a perfect swing and the perfect mental attitude. I would compare him to Hank Aaron. And, in his own way, he’s like Ted Williams. His eye is that good!”

Oh played 110 games against MLB teams in postseason, goodwill exhibition games. He hit .260 with 26 home runs, which projects to 38 homers a year and 836 over a 22-year career.

Said Pete Rose, who played against Oh in 1978 when the Cincinnati Red visited Japan, “I think he would have hit .300 and averaged 35 home runs a year if he had played in the majors.”

Of course, we’ll never know.

(Just as we’ll never know how well Bonds and Aaron might have done playing in Japan. Would they have ever seen a pitch in the strike zone?)

Over the years more than one MLB team had tried to recruit Oh. Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley and Chicago White Sox GM Bill Veeck both tried to sign him. But they were blocked by a long-standing reserve clause that bound a player to one team in Japan, and the quaint notion prevalent at the time that one should be loyal to one’s team.

As Oh put it, “I wanted to go, but even if I had found a way, the fans would have have forgiven me. It was a different time.”